WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Sunday sought to play down new disclosures that the National Security Agency has swept up innocent and often personal emails from ordinary Internet users as it targets suspected terrorists in its global surveillance for potential threats.
Administration officials said the agency routinely filters out the communications of Americans and information that is of no intelligence value. The statements came in response to a report by The Washington Post, based on a trove of conversations intercepted by the NSA.
The Post’s analysis of the data, including information that Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor, had not revealed before, suggested that roughly 9 in 10 communications involved people who were not the direct targets of surveillance.
On Sunday, Robert Litt, general counsel to the director of national intelligence, said in an interview that The Post’s article cites “figures that suggest foreign intelligence collection intercepts the communications of nine ‘bystanders’ for every ‘legally targeted’ foreigner.’’
“These reports simply discuss the kind of incidental interception of communications that we have always said takes place under Section 702,’’ he said, referring to the law that governs the collection of information on foreigners. “We target only valid foreign intelligence targets under that authority, and the most that you could conclude from these news reports is that each valid foreign intelligence target talks to an average of nine people.”
The administration has made no secret of the fact that, as it vacuums data from around the globe, it sometimes inadvertently collects information from innocent people, including some Americans. The Post article put that collection in deeply personal terms. It said baby pictures, risqué photos from webcam chats, medical records and conversations about sexual liaisons were among the NSA’s documents.
The Post article suggests that Snowden, who fled to Russia after providing internal NSA documents to reporters last year, had far greater access to people’s personal communications than had been previously disclosed. Government officials have said they do not believe he had any access to “raw” intercepts, the actual transcripts or audio of data as it was collected.
But the trove suggests, for the first time, that he did have access to what the intelligence agencies call “evaluated and minimized traffic.” That is material that analysts concluded had potential intelligence value and that had been filtered to remove references to Americans inside the United States.
The latest material from Snowden is significant because the government has been adamant that it safeguards the phone calls and emails it intercepts.
Days before The Post article, an independent federal privacy board had largely endorsed the NSA’s execution of the program. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board concluded last week that the “minimizing” of that data was largely successful, at least under the current law, which Congress passed six years ago.
Nonetheless, the process necessarily sweeps in some emails and phone calls involving American citizens. If a terrorist suspect “targeted” by the NSA talks to nine people in his regular communications, those nine will be swept into the net of surveillance, even if they have no knowledge of the suspect’s activities.